Now that we’ve come to grips with the shocking reality that Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. won’t be returning to Foxborough as a Patriot this fall, it’s time to look at what 2020 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might bring for Brady and the newly acquired Rob Gronkowski.
With Gronk in retirement in 2019, the tight end position was an abyss in New England. Patriots TEs ranked last in the league with 37 receptions and 30th with 419 yards. Tampa Bay got solid production from Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, one of whom might be moved to make room for Gronkowski.
The Brady-Gronkowski connection has already locked up its place as one of the great passer-receiver tandems in league history. The pair has teamed up for 78 regular-season touchdown passes, fifth-most all-time. They’ve added 12 more in the postseason, tied with Joe Montana-to-Jerry Rice for the most in playoff annals.
That said, Gronkowski is now 31, has been out of the game for a year, has always been injury-prone, and had modest totals in two of the last three seasons he played. He had 52.5 receiving yards per game in 2018, his lowest figure since his rookie year.
What was especially noteworthy about Gronkowski in 2018 was how little he was used in the red zone. From 2010 through 2017, Gronk caught 55 red-zone touchdown passes, tied with Jimmy Graham for the most by any player (regardless of position). In 2018, he was on the field for 133 red-zone snaps and was targeted only eight times, producing just three receptions and one TD.
In the postseason, Gronkowski did not have a red-zone reception. He was on the field for 39 snaps inside the opposition’s 20-yard line and was targeted exactly one time. It’s more than fair to wonder how much he can add to the Bucs’ attack. In fact, if it’s the 2018 version of Gronkowski who arrives in Tampa, he may not even provide the team with an upgrade at the TE position.
With Jameis Winston at the controls, the Bucs topped the NFL in net passing yards over the past four seasons, and the popular narrative states that Brady is not a great fit for Tampa’s offense – even with Gronkowski. In 2019, Winston heaved an NFL-high 94 passes that traveled more than 20 yards downfield, while Brady threw just over half that number – 52, to be exact, which ranked 15th. That said, there were some similarities between Winston and Brady in 2019.
Since 2007, when Wes Welker arrived in New England, Brady has thrived on passes to his slot receivers – first Welker and more recently, Julian Edelman. In all but three seasons since ’07, Welker or Edelman caught at least 80 passes. The only exceptions were years in which Edelman missed significant action. In 2019, Brady completed 143 passes to slot receivers, second-most in the league (Kyler Murray had a league-high 148). Edelman caught 69 passes when lined up in the slot, tied with Cooper Kupp for the most in the NFL. He topped all receivers with 104 times targeted from that position.
Given Brady’s proclivity for throwing to slot receivers, he might have found gold in Tampa Bay. Buccaneers slot receivers piled up 1,774 yards – most in the league – and caught 15 touchdown passes, second only to Baltimore’s 19. Third-year wideout Chris Godwin had a breakout season, ranking third in the league with 1,333 receiving yards, 825 of which came when he was lined up in the slot. Only the Rams’ Kupp, with 853 yards, had more yards as a slot receiver.
This isn’t to suggest that Edelman and Godwin are the same receiver. Considering only their numbers when lined up in the slot, Edelman had 6.8 air yards per reception last season, while Godwin’s average was about 40% higher at 9.6 yards. And there was a considerable difference in what they gained after the catch – an average of 6.9 YAC for Godwin to Edelman’s 3.9. All told, passes targeting Godwin as a slot receiver produced an average gain of 11.8 yards, while those to Edelman saw an average gain of 7.1. Godwin is 10 years younger and three inches taller than Edelman. It appears that Brady is replacing a trusted and effective slot receiver with a newer and more explosive model.
How dependent was Brady on slot receivers in 2019? Consider that his completion percentage when targeting those receivers was 70.4%; he completed only 56.1% of all other throws. While Edelman hauled in 100 passes, no other Patriots wide receiver caught as many as 30. There was a 71-catch disparity between Edelman and New England’s second-most productive WR, Phillip Dorsett II. Only the Saints, who were led by Michael Thomas’ record-setting 149-catch season, had a larger gap in receptions between their No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers. There was no such imbalance at Tampa, as Godwin and Mike Evans both topped 1,000 receiving yards in 2019. Brady hasn’t had a pair of wide receivers reach that figure in the same season since 2009, when Welker and Randy Moss did it.
Godwin, Evans and the tight end group give Brady a far more potent arsenal than he had with the 2019 Patriots. The troubling question for Tampa Bay fans remains: Can Brady make the deep throws that Winston made so regularly? Winston’s 94 passes of more than 20 air yards were the most by any passer in a season since 2011, when the Giants’ Eli Manning threw 96 such passes en route to a Super Bowl win. Here are Brady’s and Winston’s numbers by distance last season:
|2019 Distance||Brady Completion%||Winston Completion%|
|10 Yards & Under||65.8 (300-456)||66.3 (246-371)|
|11-20 Yards||50.5 (53-105)||63.4 (102-161)|
|21-30 Yards||42.4 (14-33)||35.2 (19-54)|
|31+ Yards||31.6 (6-19)||32.5 (13-40)|
Some other numbers that jump out: On passes thrown between 1 and 20 yards downfield, Winston tossed 23 TD passes but was intercepted a startling 23 times, nine more than any other QB. In roughly the same number of attempts of that distance, Brady’s totals were 14 TD passes and only six picks. High risk, high reward for Winston with much safer execution by Brady.
On throws of more than 20 yards downfield, Brady was quietly effective, with six touchdowns and two interceptions. Winston threw eight TD passes and was picked off six times. Their yards-per-attempt averages were relatively close: 12.3 for Winston and 11.8 for Brady.
Although nothing excites fans more than a well-thrown deep ball, the numbers suggest that Winston threw those passes as often as he did in part because he was so interception-prone on shorter routes. We sure don’t expect Brady to light up the skies in central Florida with deep passes the way his predecessor did. He will probably throw them effectively, just not nearly as often.
Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Stats Perform’s Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads.